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Lesson 13: Reject Legalism, Hold to Christ (Colossians 2:16-19)

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February 14, 2016

Christians probably have tolerated no sin more than the sin of legalism. In fact, many Christians would probably be surprised to hear legalism labeled as sin. Legalists are viewed as being a bit overzealous or perhaps as super-spiritual. But they aren’t thought of as sinning in the same sense as adulterers, thieves, and the like. To the contrary, legalism seems to promote holiness, a valid Christian concern.

Yet the Apostle Paul taught that legalism is an aggressive evil that those who have been saved by grace must strongly oppose. Most of his Epistle to the Galatians is an attack on legalism. Many of his other letters contain strong warnings about the dangers of legalism. In 1 Timothy 4:1-3, he states that certain men who forbade marriage and advocated abstaining from foods were promoting the doctrines of demons. Clearly, legalism was no minor sin in Paul’s mind!

In Colossians 2:16-23, Paul tells his readers that they must strongly resist the legalistic approach of the false teachers. There are two commands in verses 16-19: “Let no one act as your judge” in regard to certain matters (vs. 16); and, “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize” (vs. 18), which might better be translated, “Let no one set themselves up as umpire to pass judgment against you.” Both commands are saying the same thing: We must strongly reject legalism as a way of Christian living.

When we discuss legalism, we need to be careful to define our terms. Some think that legalism means having any rules or commandments. I’ve been accused of being legalistic because I preach that we should obey the commandments of Scripture. But the New Testament is full of rules and commandments. Jesus said that if we love Him, we will obey His commandments (John 14:15). Some would counter that it’s manmade rules or commandments which constitute legalism. Yet a moment’s reflection will show that this is inadequate, since there are many areas not specifically mentioned in the Bible where we need some rules in order to function as a Christian family or church.

So what is legalism? The heart of legalism is an attitude of pride. The legalist prides himself for keeping certain standards and judges others who do not keep those standards. The legalist thinks that he is made acceptable to God, either for salvation or spirituality, by his conformity to certain rules that he picks and chooses. Invariably, those rules are not things like loving the Lord with all your heart or loving your neighbor as yourself. Rather, the legalist picks rules that he is able to keep and conveniently neglects or ignores the things he is not able to keep. The legalist often focuses on external conformity while neglecting the heart righteousness God requires (Matt. 23:23-28). Dr. Charles Ryrie (Balancing the Christian Life [Moody Press], p. 159) defines legalism as “a fleshly attitude which conforms to a code for the purpose of exalting self.”

“Therefore” connects our text to the previous paragraph. Paul is telling these new believers, under attack from these false teachers, “The law was merely the shadow which pointed toward the reality, which is Christ. He fulfilled the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. We don’t grow as Christians by keeping those laws, but by holding fast to Christ.”

We grow as Christians by rejecting legalism, and by holding fast to Christ as the head of His body, the church.

External religion leads to pride; holding fast to Christ as the head leads to the growth of the body.

1. Christians must reject legalism as a way of Christian living.

I use the word “reject” because we need to see legalism for what it is: an aggressive evil which must be resisted. Legalists are not content to live as they see fit and leave others alone. They are recruiters who seek to bring everyone under their system of bondage (Matt. 23:15). Legalism is a subtle tool of Satan, because on the surface it seems to promote holiness. But it’s based on the flesh; it leads people away from vital dependence on Christ into a system of pride and judging others which destroys the church.

I want to make three observations stemming from our text to help you understand legalism:

A. Legalism judges spirituality by external conformity to certain rules.

Both verse 16 and verse 18 indicate that these false teachers had set themselves up as judges to proclaim that anyone who didn’t follow their rules was not spiritual. These rules apparently included some of the Old Testament dietary regulations as well as certain Jewish festivals. But probably these false teachers went beyond the injunctions of the law, perhaps making the Nazarite vow of avoiding all wine applicable to everyone. “Festival” refers to the annual Jewish feasts, such as Passover. “New moon” refers to monthly celebrations. “Sabbath day” refers to the weekly observance of the seventh day (1 Chron. 23:31; 2 Chron. 2:4; 31:3).

God ordained these special occasions to point forward to Jesus Christ (Luke 24:44; 1 Cor. 5:7). Paul calls them a “shadow of what is to come,” but then adds, “but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:17). He came to fulfill the Law (Matt. 5:17). Thus we are no longer obligated to keep these Jewish observances.

As you probably know, some Christians argue that Sunday (a few argue for Saturday) is now the Christian Sabbath, which we must keep in some manner. Some argue that we sin if we think or speak about anything secular or worldly on Sunday. Thus if you’re chatting with someone at church and mention last Sunday’s game, you’ve sinned! And you sinned even more if you watched the game on the Sabbath! Advocates of the Christian Sabbath usually go further than that, adding many prohibited activities which they say violate the Sabbath: You can’t stop by the grocery store on the way home from church to pick up a gallon of milk. You can’t eat out in a restaurant on Sunday, because it requires others to work. On and on it goes!

If we are required to observe Sunday as a Christian Sabbath, then Paul certainly was confusing these mostly Gentile new believers by not clarifying that in our text. (See, also, Romans 14:5.) The New Testament commands us not to forsake assembling with other believers (Heb. 10:25). It indicates that the early church gathered on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). And it implies that Sunday is “the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10). Hebrews 4 teaches that by believing in Jesus we enter God’s Sabbath rest. I think that we also can extrapolate a principle from God resting on the seventh day and from the Jewish Sabbath, namely, that it’s for our good to cease from our normal activities once a week so that we can join with the Lord’s people for worship and instruction (see my sermon, “God’s Day of Rest,” from Gen. 2:1-3). But beyond that, there are no direct Sabbath commands for us who are in Christ.

But legalists like to set up extra-biblical rules by which they can judge those who do not keep them. It’s an emphasis on the external, not on the heart before God. So a man secretly may be enslaved to pornography or greed, but if he keeps the rules that everyone can see, he’s viewed as spiritual. Jesus indicted the Pharisees for this type of thing. They honored God with their lips and their rules, but their hearts were far from Him (Matt. 15:1-9).

B. Legalists never keep the whole law, but pick certain laws to observe, by which they judge others.

These false teachers in Colossae were concerned about food and drink and certain Jewish festivals. They had commandments about what you could and could not handle, taste, and touch (Col. 2:21). But they were filled with pride and apparently were indulging in the deeds of the flesh (Col. 2:23; 3:5).

Jesus pointed out the same problem in His scorching denunciation of the Pharisees (Matt. 23:23): “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.” They prided themselves on keeping the law of tithing, and made sure everyone saw how they tithed! But they neglected the more important parts of the law.

In many churches, legalists judge others because they smoke or drink or have tattoos or don’t wear a suit to church or whatever. Some churches judge women for wearing makeup. When I was in seminary, a guy who sat next to me in chapel told me (after we had become friends) that at first he didn’t think that I was a Christian because I had a mustache! I would have had a beard, but the seminary didn’t allow that back then because (the seminary president told me) they would lose at least $50,000 in support if they did. When my dad went to a well-known Bible Institute, a senior was not allowed to graduate because a supporter of the school complained when she saw him riding in the back of the school’s bus with his arm around his fiancée! So legalists judge others over matters that they choose, but they don’t judge themselves for their own sins of pride, gossip, racial prejudice, and many other things.

C. Legalism always stems from and leads to pride.

Paul says (Col. 2:18), “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind.” Some commentators say that verse 18 is the most difficult verse in Colossians to interpret.

The first difficulty is what Paul meant by, “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize.” He was probably using an athletic metaphor, saying that these false teachers set themselves up as judges, making up their own rules. If you didn’t play by their rules, they disqualified you from the contest (Douglas Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and Philemon [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 224). They may have said that you were not saved, or at the very least, you lost your rewards in heaven.

The second problem is the phrase, “delighting in self-abasement.” “Self-abasement” is the word often used in a good sense for “humility” (Col. 3:12). But here Paul probably is being sarcastic, saying that these false teachers take pride in their humility! He may be referring to their ascetic practices of denying themselves certain things which the Bible does not forbid. They took pride in keeping their dietary rules and in their observance of these religious special days, and they judged others who did not comply.

The main interpretive difficulty is, what was their practice of worshiping angels? Without going into all the views, perhaps the most plausible view is that they were calling on angels as a means of warding off evil spirits to the extent that they were virtually worshiping them (Moo, pp. 227-229, endorsing the view of Clinton Arnold). Also, they may have used their false humility to say, “We are not spiritual enough to go into God’s presence, so we approach Him through the angels.” But in so doing, they set aside Christ’s sufficiency as our mediator.

Paul adds that these false teachers (the singular pronoun, his, may refer to a main teacher, but more likely is a generic way of referring to them all) were “taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind.” Perhaps they based their worship of the angels on visions that they claimed to have seen. And they were inflated with pride over their visions. But Paul says that they were just boasting in the flesh.

When Paul was caught up to heaven, he didn’t tell anyone about it for 14 years, and then only in sketchy terms (2 Cor. 12:1-10). He didn’t write a book about it and go on the talk show circuit, regaling everyone with his vision! Instead, God gave him a thorn in the flesh to keep him humble!

The point is, legalists don’t seek to exalt God; they exalt them­selves. Legalists operate in the flesh, not the Spirit. Thus they take pride in external conformity which can be judged outwardly. The legalist is even proud about his own humility! By way of contrast, godly people become increasingly aware of their own propensity to sin. Thus they become more dependent on Christ, which is the mark of true humility. So Paul is saying, “Reject legalism as a way of Christian living.” But there’s another implication:

2. Christians must hold to Christ as the head of His body, the church.

I’m stating positively what Paul expresses negatively about the false teachers (Col. 2:19): “and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.” Throughout Colossians, Paul has shown the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ. He has already stated (Col. 1:18), “He is also head of the body, the church.” Holding fast to Christ as the head is the key to “growth which is from God.” It implies four things:

A. Holding fast to Christ as head means not being enamored with things other than Christ.

These false teachers were caught up with the shadow, but they were ignoring the reality! They were into all sorts of rules, but they weren’t into Christ. It would be like admiring some famous person, but when you met him, instead of looking at him, you fell down on the sidewalk and said, “Oh, look at this shadow!” That’s what these false teachers were doing. They were so caught up with the ceremonial aspects of the law that they missed the One to whom those ceremonies and laws pointed! They were hugging His shadow, but missing Christ Himself!

But before we laugh at them, we need to recognize how easy it is to do the same thing. Our number one priority should be to worship God. And yet it’s easy to slip into being worship-centered rather than God-centered. We hug the shadow of various styles of worship and forget that we’re supposed to be exalting the Head of the church, who gave Himself for us on the cross. Or, I’ve seen Christians who get caught up with Bible knowledge, which is a good thing if used properly. But they get puffed up with pride over being right or understanding truths that others don’t get. So they use the Scriptures to exalt themselves, but they’ve forgotten that the Scriptures exalt Jesus (John 5:39; Luke 24:27, 44). They’re hugging the shadow, but not holding fast to the head!

To grow as a Christian, hold fast in love to the Lord Jesus! Study the Scriptures, but not so that you can boast in your knowledge, but so that you grow in your love for the Savior. God didn’t give us the Bible to fill our heads with information; He gave it so that we would come to know and love the Lord Jesus Christ and to eagerly wait for His coming as our Bridegroom. Don’t get enamored with things other than Christ!

B. Holding fast to Christ as head means beginning and then maintaining a living union with Him.

The members of the body are joined to the head in a living way. You can’t tape on an arm to a person who is missing one and expect it to function. There must be that living, organic union or that limb will be useless. Becoming a Christian is more than attending church, going through the outward motions of Christianity, and keeping some religious rules. It means being joined to Jesus Christ in a living way, so that you’re “in Him.” You don’t just join a church; you are joined to Christ Himself as a member of His body.

But the implication here is that to continue with Christ requires some responsible action on our part: We must hold fast to Him. The Bible compares our relationship to Christ to marriage (Eph. 5:22-33). On my wedding day, I was legally married to Marla and, as Scripture puts it, we became one flesh. But the exclusive relationship that we began that day has to be maintained. It doesn’t grow on autopilot. Getting to know her more deeply requires time spent together. I have to learn what pleases her. I have to reject temptations to go after other women. I have to hold fast to her in love. The same is true in my relationship with Jesus Christ.

C. Holding fast to Christ as head means submitting to Him as Lord.

This is implied in the idea of the head. The head controls the body. If your body isn’t responsive to the direction of your head, you’ve got big problems. The fact that Jesus is the head of His body, the church, means that He is the Lord of the church. He gives the orders; we must submit to Him.

There is a crazy idea in the evangelical church today that you can receive Jesus as your Savior, so that He becomes your fire insurance policy, protecting you from hell. But, submitting to Him as your Lord is optional for later on. So if you just want to be a nominal, occasional Sunday Christian who isn’t subject to Jesus as Lord, don’t worry! That decision that you made as a child in Sunday school or at church camp to invite Jesus into your heart cinched it up. You’ll still go to heaven, even if you don’t obey Jesus as Lord.

But as we saw in Colossians 1:23, the evidence of truly being reconciled to Christ is that “you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel ….” Elsewhere (1 Cor. 6:9) Paul clearly warns us not to be deceived, because, “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God” (see, also, Matt. 7:21-23; Mark 8:34-38; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:3-12; 2 Pet. 2:4-22). We’re not holding fast to Christ as head if we live consistently in disobedience to Him.

So, holding fast to Christ as head means not being enamored with things other than Christ; beginning and then maintaining a living union with Him; and, submitting to Him as Lord. Finally,

D. Holding fast to Christ as head means being a part of His functioning, growing body, the church.

Verse 19 makes it clear that being a Christian is not an individual matter. Being a Christian means being a functioning member of Christ’s body, and that body only grows when every member lives in dependence on the head and in interdependence with the other members.

Our American culture militates against the biblical truth that as members of Christ’s body, we are interdependent. We have a very independent view of life in general and of the Christian life. It’s God and me, but not me and my brothers and sisters in the church. This is reflected in the attitude that you “attend church,” much as you would attend a movie, but you aren’t closely involved with the other attenders. You come, you greet a few people casually, watch the show, and then leave. But you aren’t involved with any believers until you attend the next Sunday. But that’s not New Testament Christianity! For the church to grow with a growth from God, we must hold fast to the head. But, also, we must be closely joined to other members of the body, just as the joints and ligaments hold our physical bodies together.

It’s no accident that Paul mentions the body in the context of these false teachers, because Satan usually preys on weak Christians who are not closely involved with other believers. Growing with a growth from God means being a functioning part of the body God has designed spiritual growth to take place in.


So, down with legalism, but up with Jesus Christ and His body, the church! If you sense that you’re not growing as a Christian, it may be that either you’re not rejecting legalism as a way of Christian living, or else you’re not holding fast to Christ as the head of His body, the church. Two concluding applications:

(1) Don’t mistake liberty for license! Rejecting legalism doesn’t mean hang-loose, undisciplined living. Being free in Christ doesn’t mean freedom to sin, but freedom from sin. It is not legalism to obey the Lord Jesus Christ. Self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

(2) Don’t replace reality with rules. Some advocate living the Christian life by vows and rules. They say you need to read your Bible and pray for so many minutes each day. While I highly recommend reading your Bible and praying every day, it’s easy to follow all the rules and lose the reality of a love relationship with the Savior who died for you.

So please repeat after me: Reject legalism! Hold fast to Christ! Amen!

Application Questions

  1. How can we discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7) and yet avoid legalism?
  2. Discuss: Is grace the balance point between legalism and license (loose living), or is it altogether different? How?
  3. Why do so many Christians tolerate legalism and even see it as almost a virtue rather than a sin?
  4. Why is “attending church” not sufficient? How can we develop a greater sense of interdependence as the body of Christ?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Grace, Law

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